The Law School Gatekeepers

Every law society in Canada places one key condition on candidates for law licensure: Unless you are an internationally trained candidate, you must hold a three-year degree from an accredited law school before you can begin the bar admission process.

As a result, virtually every domestically trained lawyer in Canada has a law degree, and most of us who entered the profession this way have never questioned that. We assume that, well, naturally you need a law degree to become a lawyer — even though it’s not “natural” at all, but the result of a decision by the profession’s regulators.

To the extent lawyers do think about their law degree, it’s usually in the context of how poorly their law school experience prepared them for practice — even though, again, that’s not what law schools are meant or designed to do. But I’m more interested in another aspect of law school, one that’s directly tied to the law degree requirement for licensure.

When law societies tell prospective (domestic) lawyers that they need a law degree to begin the bar admission process, they are giving law schools the right to decide who gets to be a lawyer. They are making law schools the domestic gatekeepers for the profession.

The cohort of domestic bar admission applicants who show up on a law society’s doorstep every year do not represent the entire population of aspiring lawyers. They represent only the small, surviving fraction of a larger group of people who said to themselves, “You know, I think I’d like to be a lawyer.” They are pre-winnowed.

We don’t talk much about how law schools have a far greater impact on the lawyer population than law societies do. There’s very little attrition between acceptance at an accredited law school and admission to the provincial or territorial bar of your choice. Most law students gets a degree, most bar admission program participants graduate, and almost all candidates who get articling positions successfully complete their terms.

Acceptance into an accredited law school is a different story. Start with the number of would-be applicants who find out that the average Canadian law student graduates $71,000 in debt and say, “Thanks, I’m out,” because they simply can’t take on that level of financial risk.

This smaller, more socio-economically secure group then advances to the law school application process, where the crowd thins further. We don’t have national statistics on this point, but we do know that in 2020, Ontario law schools received 4,665 applications and granted 1,694 of them — a 36.3% acceptance rate. We can reasonably project similar numbers nationwide, meaning that almost two-thirds of aspiring lawyers in Canada fall short at this stage every year.

Law schools, of course, have every right to accept and reject whomever they please into their programs. They are free to adopt whatever criteria they wish in making those decisions, whether academic or experiential, politically progressive or politically conservative. Academic freedom must be rooted, first and foremost, in the freedom to admit and deny students on any legally authorized ground.

But let’s be clear about the consequence of all this: When it comes to domestically trained licensure candidates, the original decisions that quite literally determine who will and will not have the chance to be a lawyer — specifically, decisions about law school costs and admission standards — are made completely outside the control of the profession and its authorized regulators.

And the sole reason for this is that every law society requires domestically trained candidates to hold a three-year degree from an accredited law school before they can begin the bar admission process. Law societies are apparently alright with law schools deciding who will have the chance to become a lawyer. Are you?


  1. thanks Jordan this is a discussion that should be had. Law schools for the most part see their role in a particular way ie an education in Law not necessarily preparation for practice and that is a legitimate decision but law schools charge tuition well in excess of most other disciplines largely on the basis of students going into practice. A model of 2 years law school plus a prepatory program elsewhere (the LPP?) or a prepatory year at a law school is something that should be at least debated. I have heard but never looked into that once upon a time when there were disputes between the Law Society and U of T that the path to licensing was different. Bottom line you are right the LSO has ceded authority to the law schools which it doesn’t have to and this has largely been accepted as a given. It is not

  2. Glad to see this discussed. I suspect that similarly to medicine (US & Canada have longest paths to becoming a physician in OECD) it’s driven by US and credentialism and wanting to be JDs not LLBs… In England while the path to admission is a bit more complicated law is a straightforward undergrad degree, and outside a few (about 6) areas one need not be a lawyer to provide legal advice, and their society isn’t crumbling (or at least not due to this!).

    I’m old enough that I got an LL.B. paying only slightly more than normal undergrad annual tuition and with a fair number of fellow students (not me) who had been admitted after 2 years. I see no good reason for now generally requiring (some exceptions) a full degree before law school. Why not move to 2 years (to make sure people can handle university) then law school as the norm? As you note, why 3 years law school? There’s precious little thought given to reassessing, hey, maybe we don’t need a full two degrees taking 7 years.

  3. I can say that lawyers with more education before law school are generally more well-rounded and ready for new fact situations, since I have also hired lawyers from Québec faculties admitted straight from cégep (junior college, equivalent to Grade 13). The problem is the unconscionable rise in professional-school tuition fees of the past 25 years that seemed to have started with the Harris government in Ontario and been followed in many other provinces. The fees and resulting debt have created a huge barrier for low-income students upstream and another downstream for those who would have been prepared to do socially useful work for lower pay after graduation.

  4. Charles D. Cole, Jr.

    When you say that “Ontario law schools received 4,665 applications and granted 1,694 of them,” how do you count the 4665 applications? If an application is each time a prospective student applies to a law school (i.e., York, Toronto , and Windsor), then having a 36.3% acceptance rate does not mean that “almost two-thirds of aspiring lawyers in Canada fall short” of attending law school. For example, suppose that someone were, in fact, to apply to York, Toronto , and Windsor but be accepted at Windsor only. You would have a 33% acceptance rate but the person would not fall short since the prospective student would be attending law school at Windsor. I suspect that the data, while not supporting that there is a law school for everyone, does support that there is a law school for far more than the one third you suggest.

  5. Charles, that’s a good point. I think the number of applicants applying to multiple schools skews my simple calculation. I think the larger point stands — there are more worthy applicants than spaces available — but not to the extent I first wrote.